Cloaking Inequity: Are Charters the Answer for Ed? Testifying @NAACP Charter School Hearing

Are charters the answer for a nation’s long history of underserving the needs of poor children?

The NAACP’s most recent national resolution on charter schools has elicited a vigorous discourse about charter schools in the United States. The nation’s largest and oldest civil right organization is also a democratic, community-based organization. As a result, the National Board of the NAACP after its vote to support a charter moratorium, announced the National Task Force for Quality Education on October 15. This new group is charged with studying education quality, “until safeguards are in place to provide better transparency regarding accountability, and to prevent cases of fraud and mismanagement.” See the post Updated: @NAACP Holding Charter School Hearings Across Nation

Here are my remarks as prepared for the testimony (but necessarily as delivered). The written remarks are followed by a video of the remarks taken by Lauren Steiner. I believe that professional video of all seven hearings will be available from the NAACP at some point soon.

My Confession is that I am a former charter Volunteer (MN), Educator (CA), Parent (TX) and Donor (CA) I’ve also publish peer reviewed research on charters.

I am a scholar. We are in pursuit and convinced by evidence. So I’d like to talk about evidence today.

Here are 10 things to consider about the market-based charter schools debate:

  • Where did market-based school choice come from? Writing in the 1960s, academics such as the libertarian economist Milton Friedman, followed by John Chubb and Terry Moe in the 1990s, argued for a profit-based education system where resources are controlled by private entities rather than by democratically elected governments. They recommended a system of public education built around parent-student choice, school competition, and school autonomy as a solution to what they saw as the problem of direct democratic control of public schools.
  • School “choice” does not cure the inequality created by markets. Not surprisingly, the academics neglected to mention that market-based mechanisms are the very system that created the inequities in American public schools today. Along with other public policies, including redlining, market forces created racial and economic segregation. Instead of making this situation better, school choice made this situation worse. Research by the UCLA Civil Rights project has demonstrated this fact. I have included this report and other resources in your green folders. I have a few extra packets that I can give to folks after my presentation.
  • What does the research tell us that happens when everyone has choice? Also known as Universal choice? A group of economists mentored by Friedman, the Chicago Boys, took Friedman’s theories about education back to their home country and to push an education system with universal choice and relaxed regulation and oversight. Over the past several decades, Chile simultaneously became one of the richest countries in South America and the most unequal developed country in the world. In markets there are winners and losers.s I also recommend you check out Linda Darling-Hammond’s, a Stanford Professor, new book Global Education Reform Movement. This book examines countries around the world and finds that market-based reforms have failed spectacularly when compared with equity-based reforms.
  • The position of the NAACP and Black Lives Matter on privatization is consistent with the views of past civil rights leaders.NAACP co-founder E.B. Du Bois, in his essay Negroes and the Crisis of Capitalism in the U.S., extolled the virtues of collaborative social and government action. He railed against the role of businesses and capitalistic control that “usurp government” and made the “throttling of democracy and distortion of education and failure of justice widespread.” Malcolm X characterized market-based public policy  as “vulturistic” and “bloodsucking.” He advocated for collaborative social systems to solve problems. Martin Luther King Jr. argued that we often have socialism in public policy for the rich and rugged free market capitalism for the poor. White academics pressing for market-based school choice in the name of “civil rights” ignore this history of African American civil rights leaders advocating for collaborative systems of social support and distrusting “free market” policies.
  • Is the NAACP and Black Lives Matter position on schools out of touch with civil rights? A barrage of criticism has come from market-based school choice proponents and charter operators about the NAACP and Black Lives Matter resolutions. However, the NAACP has for years been consistent in its critique of charters schools. At the 2010 convention, the NAACP national board and members supported a resolution saying that state charter schools create “separate and unequal conditions.” A review of ten years of research supports their statement. I have included the review of research in your packets. More recently, in 2014, the NAACP connected school choice with the private control of public education. More recently, the 2016 resolution includes a variety of civil rights-based critiques such as a lack of accountability, increased segregation, and disparate punitive and exclusionary discipline for African Americans.
  • Do families actually choose charter schools? Probably the most prominent argument heard from market-based education proponents is that school choice means that families can choose their own schools. Proponents of market-based school choicehave argued that charter schools were designed to have both more freedom and more accountability. Critics of privately-managed schools point out that charters are actually afforded less accountability. Mr. Ungar in his remarks cited a recent report released by the ACLU and Public Advocates found a variety of illegal exclusionary policies in more than 20 percent of charter schools they examined. In New Orleans, parents now only have charters to choose from in the Recovery School District. The New York Times has described the reality of school choice for parents in Detroit as “no good choice.” Jonathan Williams did speak to Special Education. Our new study in the Stanford Law and Policy Review (you can find a copy in the green folder)s that was released a few weeks ago used geospatial analyses to examined charter schools and public schools nearby. While statewide number in Texas suggested similar proportion, when you conduct analyses at the local level, the disparities in access were statistically apparent.
  • Why is more oversight and accountability needed for charters? Proponents of more accountability for charter schools want parents to be able to choose from high-quality public schools. Instead, charter schools have the power to selectively choosestudents who will perform well. Charter supporters blame a few bad apple charters for limiting access and expelling too many students. But charter school supporters and their lobbyists consistently support laws that promote lax oversight and regulation. For example, the California Charter School Association has actively lobbied against data collection and accountability for charter schools. The pastor asked the Lord for opportunities for us to collaborate. I was recently asked during a conversation with Howard Fuller where we those could disagree could collaborate with the charter industry. Since that time, I have come to the belief that accountability and transparency is one such place.
  • Are teachers’ unions leading the opposition to school choice? Another common argument from supporters of privately-managed schools is that the teachers’ unions are the primary opponents of market-based school choice. But as Cristina De Jesus, from Green Dot mentioned, there are tens of thousands of unionized charter school teachers. The attacks on unions from charter supporters is misplaced. In fact, we can thank unions for the charter school idea. Albert Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers, first proposed the charter school idea in 1988. But his perspective became that his idea was being misappropriated in the creation of anti-democratic, privately managed public schools. He realized that charters were increasingly going to a group of people who were “eager for public funds but could care less about public education.” Considering peer reviewed research and reports from the Detroit Free Press— the charter agenda pressed by Betsy Devos in Michigan may be the worst example with the vast majority of charters being for profit and have some the lowest accountability and transparency standards.
  • Who is supporting charters schools behind the scenes? The hundreds of millions of dollars spent to promote privately managed schools is coming from the non-democratic foundations of billionaires such as Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Broad Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. Smaller organizations including the Black Alliance for Education Options and the Libre initiative and the Democrats for Education Reform have accepted tens of millions of dollars over the years from billionaires and their foundations to press for market-based school choice. It is very clear that civil rights organizations, academics, parents, students, media and stakeholders that have brought critiques to our democratic discourse about private control and privatization are the underdogs in this conversation.
  • Do charters perform better than public schools? Charter proponents often cite studies produced by The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University. CREDO studies are not peer reviewed. But charter school supporters and the media point to CREDO’s 2015 urban charter study to say that African American and Latino students have more success in charter schools. Leaving aside the integrity of the study, what charter proponents don’t mention is that the performance impact is .008 and .05 for Latinos and African Americans in charter schools, respectively. These numbers are larger than zero, but you need a magnifying glass to see them. Contrast that outcome with policies such as pre-K and class size reduction with far more unequivocal measures of success than charter schools. Also, CREDO doesn’t usually compare schools in their studies. Instead, researchers use statistics to compare a real charter school student to a virtual (imaginary) student based on many students attending traditional public schools. In spite of criticism of CREDO’s methods and lack of peer review, charter proponents and the media continue to cite the CREDO studies as important evidence demonstrating charter school success. 

Considering the election of Donald Trump, we may have reached a watershed moment for market-based school choice and the privatization and private control of education. I probably don’t have to tell you that Donald Trump loves charter schools. The recent appointment of Betsy Devos has made this conversation more salient than ever. Donald Trump has promised to spend 20 billion on school choice in his first 100 days. Considering his recent executive orders, he appears to be determined to implement his private control and privatization agenda regardless of the consequences of his actions on schools and communities…

In conclusion,

I have talked about ten of the more contentious points in the debate about charter schools, but there is one major point of agreement: Poor students in the United States have less opportunity for a high quality education than students living in wealthy areas.

It is the shame of our nation.

We must NOT, MUST NOT, do nothing… because African Americans, Latinos and other poor students continue to be underserved in our society on purpose.

But there is an alternative, historical and emerging research supports the expansion of community-based, democratically controlled education approaches instead of private control privatization as the best course of action for families and communities of color. Community schools in one such approach as raised by Cecily. Communities of color, unions, school board members, teachers and parents should be seen as the solution and not the problem.

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Julian Vasquez Heilig

Julian Vasquez Heilig is an award-winning researcher and teacher. He is currently a Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies and the Director of the Doctorate in Educational Leadership at California State Sacramento.

In addition to educational accomplishments, Julian Vasquez Heilig has held a variety of research and practitioner positions in...